Europa failings raise Champions League profile

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Football News

The Champions League is very much at the business end of proceedings, with two semi-finals set to reach their conclusion over the coming 48 hours.

A place at the Allianz Arena is up for grabs, with Chelsea looking to get the better of Barcelona once again after last week’s 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge, before Bayern Munich try and secure a place at their ‘home’ final against Real Madrid – they too hold a one-goal advantage from the first leg.

Each first leg encounter provided drama, intrigue and entertainment, something that is sure to delight UEFA as the premier club competition in Europe continues to draw huge crowds and television audiences.

And, whilst the Europa League did much the same with its two clashes last Thursday, interest levels in the second-tier event continue to dwindle after major changes in the formatting of the event.

To have 11 groups in the first stage of the competition takes away from the idea that only the best can compete at this level, and then adding the teams that finish third in the Champions League further takes away from the perceived majesty of the event.

It’s such a frustrating predicament, given that the old UEFA Cup enjoyed such a prominent standing in the minds of English football fans. The Cup Winners’ Cup was also loved on these shores, before it was merged with the aforementioned competition for the start of the 1999/2000 season.

Change isn’t always a bad thing when it comes to major competitions, and the reformatted Champions League is a perfect example of that.

With the European Cup struggling to capture the imagination, UEFA made the decision to create the current competition, with group stages followed by a knockout competition.

And, sure enough, it worked. People brought the concept, and it’s subsequently grown into the massive event that we now consider to be the best club competition in the world.

For the Europa League to follow that as the second competition, it needs to make some changes.

The first is to change the format, again slimming it down to 32 teams, with group stages followed by knockout competitions. The Champions League format has proved this worked, so why not replicate it.

Secondly, stop Champions League losers from joining at the first knockout stage. Why, for finishing third, would you be rewarded with a second chance to win in Europe? It also takes away from smaller clubs getting their chance to shine on a big stage when the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City crash the last 32 party.

Money is also an issue, with clubs earning around €1 million in the group stage. Slim the number of teams at this point, and the amount of money goes up, which would add extra incentive to try and do well.

Last season’s winners, FC Porto, earned just €7 million for their glory, a fraction of that received by Barcelona for their success at Wembley over Manchester United.

With much greater sums available to a team reaching the Champions League, clubs like Tottenham Hotspur see little value in chasing UEFA Cup glory, and instead opt to focus on the challenge for a top four finish.

It can’t be right when a club like Spurs throw away the chance of European success in the group stages. What happened to the prestige of winning such a competition? Why not offer a Champions League place for the winners of the Europa League - it seems so obvious.

With Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and Sporting Lisbon contesting the last four, it's clear that other countries - notably Spain and Portugal - take this competition seriously.

But, even when Manchester United and Manchester City dropped down to the Europa League, it failed to capture the imagination of the British public. And, whilst it won't be the greatest of concerns to UEFA, they will be well aware that English interest can only add to the value of the competition.

For now though, the lack of interest in the Europa only works to add to the interest in the Champions League, with everyone's eggs placed in one basket and sole focus on success at the very top table on this continent.

When the weekend arrives, talk will be of how Chelsea got on in Catalonia, and if Real Madrid got one over on their German rivals in Madrid. Thursday nights just won't be on the radar.

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